Responsibility For Self

Free Will

Think with Charles Taylor.

WHAT is the notion of responsibility which is bound up with our conception of a person or self? Is there a sense in which the human agent is responsible for himself which is part of our very conception of the self’? This is certainly a commonly held idea, among ‘ordinary men’ as well as among philosophers. Just to mention two contemporary specimens of the latter breed: H. Frankfurt has made the point that a person is more than just a subject of desires, of choices, even of deliberation; that we attribute to persons the ability to forin ‘second-order desires’: to want to be moved by certain desires, or ‘second-order volitions’: to want certain first-order desires to be the ones which move them to action. If we think of what we are as defined by our goals, by what we desire to encompass or maintain, then a person on this view is one who can raise the question: Do 1 really want to be what I now am? (i.e. have the desires and goals I now have?) In other words, beyond the de facto characterization of the subject by his goals, desires, and purposes, a person is a subject who can pose the de jure question: is this the kind of beina 1 ought to be, or really want to be? There is as Frankfurt puts it a ‘capacity for reflective selfevaluation … manifested in the formation of second-order desires’ .

Or again, we can invoke Heidegger’s famous formula, taken up by Sartre: ‘das Seiende, dem es in seinem Sein urn diescs selbat geht’ (Sein Und Zeit, 42). The idea here, at a first approximation, is that the human subject is such that the question arises inescapably, which kind of being he is going torealize. He is not just de facto a certain kind of being, with certain given desires, but it is somehow ‘up to’ him what kind of being he is going to be.

In both these views we have the notion that human subjects are capable of evaluating what they are, and to the extent that they can shape themselves on this evaluation, are responsible for what they are in a way that other subjects of action and desire (the higher animals for instance) cannot be said to be. It is this kind of evaluation/responsibility which many believe to be essential to our notion of the self.

1. What is involved here? Let’s look first at evaluation. Of course, in a sense the capacity to evaluate can be ascribed to any subject of desire. My dog ‘evaluates’ that beefsteak positively. But the kind of evaluation implicit in the above formulations is a reflective kind where we evaluate our desires themselves. It is this plainly which we are tempted to think of as essential to our notion of a self.

But the evaluation of desires or desired consummations can itself be understood in both a weak and a strong sense. To take the weaker sense, an agent could weigh desired actions simply to determine convenience, or how to make different desires compossible-he might resolve to put off eating although hungry, because later he could both eat and swim-orhow to get the most overall satisfaction. But there would not yet be any evaluation in a strong sense where I class desires as being bad or unworthy, or lower; where, in other words, desires are classified in such categories as higher or lower, virtuous or vicious, more or less fulfilling, more or less refined, profound or superficial, noble or base; where they are judged as belonging to qualitatively different modes of life, fragmented or integrated, alienated or free, saintly or merely human, courageous or pusillanimous, and so on.

The difference between a reflection which is couched in qualitative distinctions and one which is not has nothing necessarily to do with calculation. The difference is rather (1) that in the latter reflection, for something to be judged good it is sufficient that it be desired, whereas in qualitative reflection there is also a use of ‘good’ or some other evaluative term for which being desired is not sufficient; indeed some desires or desired consummations• can be judged as bad, base, ignoble, trivial, superficial, unworthy, and so on.

It follows from this (2) that when in non-qualitative reflection one desired alternative is set aside, it is only on grounds of its contingent incompatibility with a more desired alternative. But with qualitative reflection this is not necessarily the case. Some desired consummation may be eschewed not because it is incompatible with another, or if because of incompatibility, this will not be contingent. Thus I refrain from committing some cowardly act, although very tempted to do so, but this is not because this act at this moment would make any other desired act impossible, but rather because it is base.

But, of course, there is also a way in which we could characterize this alternative which wOlild bring out incompatibility. If we examine my evaluative vision more closely, we shall see that I value courageous action as part of a mode of life; I aspire to be a certain kind of person. This would be compromised by my giving into this craven impulse. Here there is incompatibility. But this incompatibility is no longer contingent. It is not just a matter of circumstances which makes it impossible to give in to the impulse to flee and still cleave to a courageous, upright mode of life. Such a mode of life consists among other things in withstanding such craven impulses. That there should be incompatibility of a non-contingent kind here is not adventitious, for qualitative reflection deploys a language of evaluative distinctions, in which different desires are described as noble or base, integrating or fragmenting, courageous or cowardly, clairvoyant or blind, and so on. But this means that they are characterized contrastively. Each concept of one of the above pairs can only be understood in relation to the other. No one can have an idea what courage is unless he knows what cowardice is, just as no one can have a notion of ‘red’, say, without some other colour terms with which it contrasts. And of course with evaluative terms, as with colour terms, the contrast may not just be with one other, but with several. And indeed, refining an evaluative vocabulary by introducing new terms would alter the sense of the existing terms, even as it would with our colour vocabulary.

This means that in qualitative reflection, we can characterize the alternatives contrastively; and indeed, it can be the case that we must do so if we are to express what is really desirable in the favoured alternative. But this is not so with non-qualitative reflection. Of course, in each case we are free to express the alternatives in a number of ways, some of which are and some of which are not contrastive. But if I want to identify the alternatives in terms of their desirability, the characterization ceases to be contrastive. What is going for lunching now is that I’m hungry, and it is unpleasant to wait while one’s hungry and a great pleasure to eat. What’s going for eating later is that I can swim. But I can identify the pleasures of eating quite independently from those of swimming; indeed, I may have enjoyed eating long before swimming entered my life (and the reverse could conceivably be true, if I spent my childhood eating something revolting like brussel sprouts-although failure to enjoy eating, no matter what one is fed, is probably a psychological impossibility). Not being contrastively described, these two desired consummations are incompatible, where they are, only contingently and circumstantially.

Reciprocally, I can describe the issue of my qualitative reflection noncontrastively. I can say that the choice is between saving my life, or perhaps avoiding pain or embarrassment, on one hand, and upholding my honour on the other. Now certainly I can understand preserving my life, and what is desirable about it, without any acquaintance with honour, and the same goes for avoiding pain and embarrassment. But the reverse is not quite the case. No one could understand ‘honour’ without some reference to our desire to avoid death, pain, or embarrassment, because one preserves honour among other things by a certain stance towards these. Still saving one’s honour is not simply contrastively defined with saving one’s life, avoiding pain and so on; there are many cases where one can save one’s life without any taint to honour, without the question even arising.

But the case we are imagining is not one of these. Rather we are imagining a situation in which I save my life or avoid pain by some cowardly act. In this situation, the non-contrastive description is a cop-out. I can indeed identify the desirability of the ‘lower’ alternative in a way which makes no reference to the higher, for here the desirability just is that life is preserved or pain avoided. I am certainly not going to mention that the act is cowardly, for this is not part of what recommends it to me. But things are different when we come to the ‘higher’ alternative. This is desirable because it is an act of courage, or integrity or honour. And it is an essential part of being courageous that one eschew such craven acts as the ‘lower’ alternative that here beckons. Someone who doesn’t understand this doesn’t understand what ‘courage’ means. The incompatibility here is not contingent. So in qualitative reflection, where we deploy a language of evaluative distinctions, the rejected desire is not so rejected because of some mere contingent or circumstantial conflict with another goal. Being cowardly doesn’t compete with other goods by taking up the time and energy I need to pursue them, and it may not alter my circumstances in such a way as to prevent me pursuing them. The conflict is deeper; it is not contingent.

2. The utilitarian strand in our civilization would induce us to abandon the language of qualitative contrast, and this means, of course, abandon our strong evaluative languages, for their terms are only defined in contrast. And we can be tempted to redefine issues we are reflecting on in this nonqualitative fashion. For instance, let us say that I am addicted to overeating. Now as I struggle with this addiction, in the reflection in which I determine that moderation or controlling my irritation is better, I can be looking at the alternatives in a language of qualitative contrast. I yearn to be free of this addiction, to be the kind of person whose mere bodily appetites respond to his higher aspirations, and don’t carryon remorselessly and irresistibly dragging me to incapacity and degradation.

But then I might be induced to see my problem in a quite different light. I might be induced to see it as a question of quantity of satisfaction. Eating too much cake increases the cholesterol in my blood, makes me fat, ruins my health, prevents me from enjoying all sorts of other desired consummations; so it isn’t worth it. Here I have stepped away from the contrastive language of qualitative evaluation. Avoiding high cholesterol content, obesity, illhealth, or being able to climb stairs, and so on, can all be defined quite independently from my eating habits.

This is a conflict of self-interpretations. Which one we adopt will partly shape the meanings things have for lis. But the question cun nrillc which is more valid, more faithful to reality. To be in error hcre is ttrull not jult to
make a misdescription, as when I describe u molor vehicle as a cur when it is really a truck. We think of misidentification here as in some sense distorting the reality concerned. For the man who is trying to talk me out of seeing my problem as one of dignity versus degradation, I have made a crucial misidentification. But it is not just that I have called a fear of too high cholesterol content by the name ‘degradation’; it is rather that infantile fears of punishment or loss of parental love have been irrationally transferred on to obesity, or the pleasures of eating, or something of the sort (to follow a rather vulgar Freudian line). My experience of obesity, eating, and so forth, is shaped by this. But if I can get over this ‘hang-up’ and see the real nature of the underlying anxiety, I will see that it is largely groundless, that is, I do not really incur the risk of punishment or loss of love; in fact there is a quite other list of things at stake here: ill health. inability to enjoy the outdoor life, early death by heart attack, and so on.

So might go a modem variant of the utilitarian thrust, trying to reduce our qualitative contrasts to some homogeneous medium. In this it would be much more plausible and sophisticated than earlier variants which talked as though it were just a matter of simple misidentification, that what people sought who pined after honour, dignity, intearity, and so on, were simply other pleasurable states to which they gave these high-sounding names.

There are of course ripostes to these attempts to reduce our evaluations to a non-qualitative form. We can entertain the counter-surmise that the rejection of qualitative distinctions is itself an illusion, powered perhaps by an inability to look at one’s life in the light of some of these distinctions, a failure of moral nerve, as it were; or else by the draw of a certain objectifying stance towards the world. We might hold that the most hard-bitten
utilitarians are themselves moved by qualitative distinctions which remain unadmitted, that they admire the mode of life in which one calculates consciously and clairvoyantly as something higher than the life of selfindulgent illusion, and do not simply elect it as more satisfying.

We can’t resolve this issue here. The point of introducing this distinction between qualitative and non-qualitative reflection is to contrast the different kinds of self that each involves. In examining this it will, I think, become overwhelmingly plausible that we are not beings whose only authentic evaluations are non-qualitative as the utilitarian tradition suggests; that if evaluation of desires is essential to our notion of the self, it is strong and not just weak evaluation which is in question.

3. Someone who evaluates non-qualitatively, that is, makes decisions like that of eating now or later, taking a holiday in the north or in the south, might be called a simple weigher of alternatives. And the other, who deploys a language of evaluative contrasts ranging over desires we might call a strong evaluator.

Now we have seen that a simple weigher is already reflective ina minimal sense, that he evaluates courses of action, and sometimes is capable of acting out of that evaluation as against under the impress of immediate desire. And this is a necessary feature of what we call a self or a person. He has reflection, evaluation and will. But in contrast to the strong evaluator he lacks something else which we often speak of with the metaphor of ‘depth’.

The strong evaluator envisages his alternatives through a richer language. The desirable is not only defined for him by what he desires, or what he desires plus a calculation of consequences; it is also defined by a qualitative characterization of desires as higher and lower, noble and base, and so on. Where it is not a calculation of consequences, reflection is not just a matter of registering the conclusion that alternative A is more attractive to me, or draws me more than B. Rather the higher desirability of A over B is something I can articulate if I am reflecting a strong evaluator. I have a vocabulary of worth.

Faced with incommensurables, which is our usual predicament, the simple weigher’s experiences ofthe superiority of A over Bare inarticulable. The role of reflection is not to make these articulate, but rather to step back from the immediate situation, to calculate consequences, to compensate for the immediate force of one desire which might not be the most advantageous to follow (as when I put off lunch to swim-with-lunch later), to get over hesitation by concentrating on the inarticulate ‘feel’ of the alternatives.

But the strong evaluator is not similarly inarticulate. There is the beginning of a language in which to express the superiority of one alternative, the language of higher and lower, noble and base, courageous and cowardly, integrated and fragmented, and so on. The strong evaluator can articulate superiority just because he has a language of contrastive characterization. So within an experience of reflective choice between incommensurables, strong evaluation is a condition of articulacy, and to acquire a strongly evaluative language is to become (more) articulate about one’s preferences.

The simple weigher’s reflection is structured by a number of de facto desires, whereas the strong evaluator ascribes a value to those desires. He characterizes his motivation at greater depth. To characterize one desire or inclination as worthier, or nobler, or more integrated, and so forth, than others is to speak of it in terms of the kind of quality of life which it expresses and sustains. I eschew the cowardly act above because I want to be a courageous and honourable human being. Whereas for the simple weigher what is at stake is the desirability of different consummations, those defined by his de facto desires, for the strong evaluator reflection also examines the different possible modes of life or modes of being of the agent.

Motivations or desires don’t only count in virtue of the attraction of the consummations but also in virtue of the kind of life and kind of subject that these desires properly belong to. This is what lies behind our ordinary use of the metaphor of depth applied to people. Someone is shallow in our view when we feel that he is insensitive, unaware, or unconcerned about issues touching the quality of his life which seem to us basic or important. He lives on the surface because he seeks to fulfil desires without being touched by the ‘deeper’ issues, what these desires express and sustain in the way of modes of life; or his concern with such issues seems to us to touch on trivial or unimportunt questions, for example, he is concerned about the glamour of his life, or how it will appear, rather than the (to us) real issues of the quality of life. The complete utilitarian would be an impossibly shallow character, and we can gauge how much selfdeclared utilitarians really live their ideology by what importance they attribute to depth.

We saw that the strong evaluator reflects in another, deeper sense than the simple weigher, and this because he evaluates in a different way. And after this discussion we can perhaps see why we are tempted to make evaluation, and indeed, strong evaluation, an essential characteristic of a person. For any being who was incapable of evaluating desires (as my dog, e.g. is incapable), or who could only evaluate as a simple weigher, would lack the depth to be a potential interlocutor, a potential partner of human communion, be it as friend, lover, confidant, or whatever. And we cannot see one who could not enter into any of these relations as a normal human subject.

I would like now to turn to examine the notion of responsibility for oneself which goes along with this notion of the agent as a strong evaluator; Naturally we think of the agent as responsible, in part, for what he does; and since he is an evaluator, we think of him as responsible in part for the degree to which he acts in line with his evaluations. But we are also inclined to think of him as responsible in some sense for these evaluations themselves.

This more radical responsibility is even suggested by the word ‘evaluation’, which belongs to the modem, one might almost say post-Nietzschean, vocabulary of moral life. For it relates to the verb ‘evaluate’, and the very term here implies that this is something we do, that our evaluations emerge from our activity of evaluation, and in this sense are our responsibility. This active sense is conveyed in Frankfurt’s formulation where he speaks of persons as exhibiting ‘reflective self-evaluation that is manifested in the formation of second-order desires’. And when we turn to the quote from Heidegger at the beginning of this paper, the notion of responsibility is strikingly put in the idea that Daien’s being is in question in his being, that the kind of being we are to realize is constantly in question.

How are we to understand this responsibility? An influential strand of thought in the modern world has wanted to understand it in terms of choice. The Nietzschean term ‘value’, suggested by our ‘evaluation’, carries this idea that our ‘values’ are our creations, that they ultimately repose on our espousing them. But to say that they ultimately repose on our espousing them is to say that they issue ultimately from a radical choice, that is, a choice which is not grounded in any reasons. For to the extent that a choice is grounded in reasons, these are simply taken as valid and are not themselves chosen.If our ‘values’ are to be thought of as chosen, then they must respose finally on a radical choice in the above sense.

This is, of course, the line taken by Sarte in L’ Etre et Ie Neant, in which he translates verbatim the quote above from Heidegger and gives it this sense that the fundamental project which defines us reposes on a radical choice ..

The choice, Sartre puts it with his characteristic flair for striking formulae, is ‘absurde, en ce sens qu’il est ce par quoi toutes les raisons viennent a l’etre.’2 This idea of radical choice is also defined by an influential AngloSaxon school of moral philosophers. But in fact we cannot understand our responsibility for our evaluations through the notion of radical choice. Not if we are to go on seeing ourselves as strong evaluators, as agents with depth. For a radical choice between strong evaluations is quite conceivable, but not a radical choice of such evaluations. To see this we might examine a famous Sartrian example, which turns out, I believe, to illustrate the exact opposite of Sartre’s thesis, the example in L’Existentiaiisme est un Humanisme of the young man who is tom between remaining with his ailing mother and going off to join the Resistance. Sartre’s point is that there is no way of adjudicating between these two strong claims on his moral allegiance through reason or the reliance on some kind of considerations. He has to settle the question, whichever way he goes, by radical choice.

Sartre’s portrayal of the dilemma is very powerful here. But what makes it plausible is precisely what undermines his position. We see a grievous moral dilemma because the young man is faced here with two powerful moral claims. On one hand his ailing mother who may well die if he leaves her, and die in the most terrible sorrow, not even sure thut her son sti11lives; on the other side the call of his country, conquered and laid waste by the enemy, and not only his country, for his enemy is destroying the very foundation of civilized and ethical relations between men. A cruel dilemma, indeed. But it is a dilemma only because the claims themselves are not created by radical choice. If they were, the grievous nature of the predicament would dissolve, for that would mean that the young man could do away with the dilemma at-any moment by simply declaring one of the rival claims as dead and inoperative. Indeed, if serious claims were created by radical choice, the young man could have a grievous dilemma about whether to go and get an ice cream cone, and then again he could decide not to.

It is no argument against the view that evaluations do not repose on radical choice that there are moral dilemmas. Why should it even be surprising that the evaluations we feel called upon to assent to may conflict, even grievously, in some situations? I would argue that the reverse is the case, that moral dilemmas become inconceivable on the theory of radical choice. Now in this hypothetical case the young man has to resolve the matter by radical choice. He just has to plump for the Resistance, or for staying at home with his mother. He has no language in which the superiority of one alternative over the other can be articulated; indeed, he has not even an inchoate sense of the superiority of one over the other, they seem quite incommensurable to him. He just throws himself one way.

This is a perfectly understandable sense of radical choice. But then imagine extending this to all cases of moral action. Let us apply it to the case that I have an ailing mother and no rival obligation, as to the Resistance. Do I stay, or do I go for a holiday on the Riviera? There is no question, I should stay. Of course, I may not stay. In this sense, there is always a ‘radical choice’ open: whether to do what we ought or not. But the question is whether we can construe the determination of what we ought to do here as issuing from a radical choice. What would this look like? Presumably, we would be faced with the two choices, to stay with my mother or to go south.

On the level of radical choice these alternatives have as yet no contrastive characterization, that is, one is not the path of duty, while the other is that of selfish indulgence, or whatever. This contrastive description will be created by radical choice. So what does this choice consist in? Well, I might ponder the two possibilities, and then I might just find myself doing one rather than another. But this brings us to the limit where choice fades into non-choice. Do I really choose if I just start doing one of the alternatives? And above all this kind of resolution hasno place for the judgement ‘lowe it to my mother to stay’, which is supposed to issue from the choice. What is it to have this judgement issue from radical choice? Not that on pondering the alternatives, the sense grows more and more strongly that this judgement is right, for this would not be an account of radical choice, but rather of our coming to see that our obligation lay here. This account would present obligations as issuing not from radical choice but from some kind of vision of our moral predicament. This choice would be grounded. What is it then for radical choice to issue in this judgement? Is it just that I find myself assenting to the judgement, as above I found myself doing one of the two actions? But then what force has ‘assenting to the judgement’? I can certainly just find myself saying ‘lower it to my mother’, but this is surely not what it is to assent. 1 can, I suppose, find myself feeling suddenly, ‘lowe this to my mother’; but then what grounds are there for thinking of this as a choice? In order for us to speak of choice, we cannot just find ourselves in one of
the alternatives. We have in some sense to experience the pull of each and give our assent to one. But what kind of pull do the alternatives have here? What draws me to the Cote d’Azure is perhaps unproblematic enough, but what draws me to stay with my mother cannot be the sense that lowe it to her, for that ex hypothesi has to issue from the choice.

The agent of radical choice has to choose, if he chooses at all, like a simple weigher. And this means that he cannot be properly speaking a strong evaluator. For all his putative strong evaluations issue from simple weighings. The application of a contrastive language which makes a preference articulate reposes on fiat, a choice made between incommensurabies.

But then the application of the contrastive language would be in an important sense bogus. For by hypothesis the experience on which this application reposed would be more properly characterized by a preference between incommensurables; the fundamental experience which was supposed to justify this language would in fact be that of the simple weigher, not of the strong evaluator. For again by hypothesis, what leads him to call one alternative higher or more worthy is not that in his experience it appears to be so, for then his evaluations would be judgements, not choices; but rather that he is led to plump for one rather than the other after considering the attractiveness of both alternatives.

The paradox of the theory of radical choice is that it seems to make the universal feature of moral experience what we identify as the failing of rationalization, dressing up as a moral choice what is really a de facto preference. In fact, however, proponents of the theory would vigorously contest what I have just said; for they see the ideal agent not as a rationalizer. but as one who is aware of his choices. Perhaps then it is that in radical choice I don’t cOfl!lult preferences al all.

It is not that I try to see which I prefer, and then failing to get a result, I throw myself one way or the other; but rather, this kind of choice is made quite without regard to preferences. But then with regard to what is it made? Here we border on incoherence. A choice made without regard to anything, without the agent feeling any solicitation to one alternative or the other, or in complete disregard of such solicitation, is this still choice? But if this is a choice and not just an inexplicable movement, it must have been accompanied by something like: ‘damn it, why should I always choose by the book? I’ll take B’; or maybe he just suddenly felt that he really wanted B. In either case his choice clearly relates to his preference, however suddenly arising and from whatever reversal of criteria. But a choice utterly unrelated to the desirability of the alternatives would not be intelligible as a choice.

The theory of radical choice in fact II deeply incoherent. for it wants to maintain both strong evaluation and radical choice. It wants to have strong evaluations and yet deny their status as judgements. In fact it maintains a semblance of plausibility by surreptitioully assuming strong evaluation beyond the reach of radical choice, and that In two ways. First, the real answer to our attempted assimilation of radical moral choice to the mere preference of a simple weigher is that the choices talked about in the theory nre about basic and fundamental issues, like the choice of our young man above between his mother and the Resistance. But these issues are basic and fundamental not in virtue of radical choice; their importance is given, or revealed, in,an evaluation which is constated not chosen. The real force of the theory of radical choice comes from the sense that there are different moral perspectives, that there is a plurality of moral visions, as we said in the previous section, between which it seems very hard to adjudicate. We can conclude that the only way of deciding between these is by the kind of radical choice that our young man had to take.

And this in turn leads to a second strong evaluation beyond the reach of choice. If this is the predicament of man, then it plainly is a more honest, more clairvoyant, less confused and self-deluding stance, to be aware of this and take the full responsibility for the radical choice. The stance of ‘good faith’ is higher, and this not in virtue of radical choice, but in virtue of our characterization of the human predicament in which radical choice has such an important place. Granted this is the moral predicament of man, it is more honest, courageous, self-clairvoyant, hence a higher mode of life, to choose in lucidity than it is to hide one’s choices behind the supposed structure of things, to flee from one’s responsibility at the expense of lying to oneself, of a deep self-duplicity.

When we see what makes the theory of radical choice plausible, we see how strong evaluation is something inescapable in our conception of the agent and his experience; and this because it is bound up with our notion of the self. So that it creeps back in even where it is supposed to have been excluded.

What then is the sense we can give to the responsibility of the agent, if we are not to understand it in terms of radical choice? There is in fact another sense in which we are radically responsible. Our evaluations are not chosen. On the contrary they are articulations of our sense of what is. worthy, or higher, or more integrated, or more fulfilling, and so forth. But this sense can never be fully or satisfactorily articulated. And moreover it touches on matters where there is so much roomfor self-deception, for distortion, for blindness and insensitivity, that the question can always arise whether one is sure, and the injunction is always in place to look again.

We touch here on a crucial feature of our evaluations-one which has given some of its plausibility to the theory of radical choice. They are not simply descriptions, if we mean by this characterizations of a fully independent object, that is, an object which is neither altered in what it is, nor in the degree or manner of its evidence to us by the description. In this way my characterization of this table as brown, or this line of mountains as jagged, is a simple description.

Our strong evaluations may be called by contrast articulations, that is, they are attempts to formulate what is initially inchoate, or confused, or badly formulated. But this kind of formulation or reformulation doesn’t leave its object unchanged. To give a certain articulation is to shape our sense of what we desire or what we hold important in a certain way. Let us take the case above of the man who is fighting obesity and who is talked into seeing it as a merely quantitative question of more satisfaction, rather than as a matter of dignity and degradation. As a result of this change, his inner struggle itself becomes transformed, it is now quite a different experience. The opposed motivations-the craving for cream cake and his dissatisfaction with himself at such indulgence-which are the ‘objects’ undergoing redescription here, are not independent in the sense outlined above. When he comes to accept the new interpretation of his desire to control himself, this desire itself has altered. True, it may be said on one level to have the same goal, that he stop eating cream cake, but since it is no longer understood as a seeking for dignity and sclf-rclpcct it has become quite a different kind of motivation, Of course, even here we often try to preserve the identity of the objects undergoing redescription-so deeply rooted is the ordinary descriptive model. We’might think of the change, say, in terms of some immature sense of shame and degradation being detached from our desire to resist overindulgence, which has now simply the rational goal of increasing over-all satisfaction. In this way we might maintain the impression that the elements are just rearranged while remaining the same. But on a closer look we see that on this reading,. too, the sense of shame doesn’t remain self-identical through the change. It dissipates altogether, or becomes something quite different.

Thus our descriptions of our motivations, and our attempts to formulate what we hold important, are not simple descriptions, in that their objects are not fully independent. And yet they arc not simply arbitrary either, such that anything goes. There are more or less adequate. more or less truthful, more self-clairvoyant or self-deluding interpretations. Because of this double fact, because an articulation can be wrong, and yet it shapes what it is wrong about, we sometimes see erroneous articulations as involving a distortion of the reality concerned. We don’t just speak of error but frequently also of illusion or delusion.

We could put the point this way. Our attempts to formulate what we hold important must, like descriptions, strive to be faithful to something. But what they strive to be faithful to is not an independent object with a fixed degree and manner of evidence, but rather a largely inarticulated sense of what is of decisive importance. An articulation of this ‘object’ tends to make it something different from what it was before. And by the same token a new articulation doesn’t leave its ‘object’ evident or obscure to us in the same manner or degree as before. In the act of shaping it, it makes it accessible and/or inaccessible in new ways. Because articulations partly shape their objects in these two ways, they are intrinsically open to challenge in a way that simple descriptions are not. Evaluation is such that there is always room for re-evaluation. But our evaluations are the more open to challenge precisely in virtue of the very character of depth which we see in the self. For it is precisely the deepest evaluations which are least clear, least articulated. most easily subject to illusion and distortion. It is those which are closest to what lum as a subject, ill the sense that shorn of them I would break down as a person, which ure among the hardest for me to be clear: about.

The question can always be posed: ought I to re-evaluate my most basic evaluations? Have I really understood what is essential to my identity? Have I truly determined what I sense to be the highest mode of life? This kind of re-evaluation will be radical, not in the sense of radical choice, however, that we choose without criteria, but rather in the sense that our looking again can be so undertaken that in principle no formulations are considered unrevisable.

What is of fundamental importance for us will already have an; articulation, some notion of a certain mode of life as higher than others, or’ the belief that some cause is the worthiest that can be served; or the sense that belonging to this community is essential to my identity. A radical reevaluution will cull these formulations into question. But a re-evaluation of this kind, once embarked on, is of a peculiar sort. It is unlike a less than radical evaluation which is carried on within the terms of some fundamental, evaluation, when I ask myself whether it would be honest totake advantage: of this income-tax loophole, or smuggle something through customs. These: latter can be carried on in a language which is out of dispute. In answer in: the questions just mentioned the term ‘honest’ is taken as beyond challenge.; But in radical re-evaluations the most basic terms, those in which other; evaluations are carried on, are precisely what is in question. It is jus: because all formulations are potentially under suspicion of distorting their objects that we have to see them all as revisable, that we are forced back,a it were, to the inarticulate limit from which they originate.

1 How then can such re-evaluations be carried on? There is certainly nq metalanguage available in which I can assess rival self-interpretations. I there were, this would not be a radical re-evaluation. On the contrary the re-evaluation is carried on in the formulae available, but with a stance o attention, as it were, to what these formulae are meant to articulate and wit a readiness to receive any Gestalt shift in our view of the situation, any quit innovative set of categories in which to see our predicament, that might come our way in inspiration.

Anyone who has struggled with a philosophical problem knows what this kind of enquiry is like. In philosophy typically we start off with a question, which we know to be badly formed at the outset. We hope that in struggling with it, we shall find that its terms are transformed, so that in the end we will answer a question which we couldn’t properly conceive at the beginning. We are striving for conceptual innovation which will allow us to illuminate some matter, sayan area of human experience, which would otherwise remain dark and confused. The alternative is to stick to certain fixed terms (are these propositions synthetic or analytic, is this a psychological question or a philosophical question, is this view monist or dualist?).

The same contrast can exist in our evaluations. We can attempt a radical re-evaluation, in which case we may hope that our terms will be transformed in the course of it; or we may stick to certain favoured terms, insist that all evaluations can be made in their ambit. and refuse any radical questioning.

To take an extreme case, someone can adopt the utilitarian criterion and then claim to settle all further issues about action by some calculation. The point has been made again and again by non-naturalists, existentialists and others that those who take this kind ofline are ducking a major question, should I really decide on the utilitarian principle? But this doesn’t mean that the alternative to this stance is a radical choice. Rather it is to look again at our most ‘fundamental formulations, and at what they were meant to articulate, in a stance of openness, where we are ready to accept any categorical change, however radical, which might emerge. Of course we will actually start thinking of particular cases, e.g. where our present evaluations recommend things which worry us, and try to puzzle further. In doing this we will be like the philosopher with his initially ill-formed question. But we may get through to something deeper.

In fact this stance of openness is very difficult. It may take discipline and time. It is difficult because this form of evaluation is deep in a sense, and total in a sense that the other less than radical ones are not. If I am questioning whether smuggling a radio into the country is honest, or I am judging everything by the utilitarian criterion, then I have a yardstick, a definite yardstick. But if I go to the radical questioning, then it is not exactly that I• have no yardstick, in the sense that anything goes, but rather that what takes the place of the yardstick is my deepest unstructured sense of what is important, which is as yet inchoate and which I am trying to bring to definition. I am trying to see reality afresh and form more adequate categories to describe it. To do this I am trying to open myself, use all of my deepest, unstructured sense of things in order to come to a new clarity. Now this engages me at a depth that using a fixed yardstick does not. I am in a sense questioning the inchoate sense that led me to use the yardstick.

And at the same time it engages my whole self in a way that judging by a yardstick does not. This is what makes it uncommonly difficult to reflect on our fundamental evaluations. It is much easier to take up the formulations that come most readily to hand, generally those which are going the rounds of our milieu or society, and live within them without too much probing. The obstacles in the way of going deeper are legion. There is not only the difficulty of such concentration, and the pain of uncertainty, but also all the distortions and repressions which make us want to tum away from this examination; and which make us resist change even when we do re-examine ourselves. Some of our evaluations may in fact become fixed and compulsive, so that we cannot help feeling guilty about X, or despising people like Y, even though we judge with the greatest degree of openness and depth at our command that X is perfectly all right, and that Y is a very admirable person.

This casts light on another aspect of the term ‘deep’, as applied to people. We consider people deep to the extent, inter alia, that they are capable of this kind of radical self-reflection.! This radical evaluation is a deep reflection, and a self-reflection in special sense: it is a reflection about the self, its most fundamental issues,: and a reflection which engages the self most wholly and deeply. Because I engages the whole self without a fixed yardstick it can be called a personal reflection (the parallel to Polanyi’s notion of personal knowledge is intended here); and what emerges from it is a self-resolution in a strong sense, for i~ this reflection the self is in question; what is at stake is the definition of those inchoate evaluations which are sensed to be essential to our identity.

Because this self-resolution is something we do, when we do it, we can be called responsible for ourselves; and because it is within limits always up to us to do it, even when we don’t-indeed, the nature of our deepest evaluations constantly raises the question whether we have them right-wd can be called responsible in another sense for ourselves whether wei undertake this radical evaluation or not. This is perhaps Heidegger’s notion in Sein und Zeit, quoted above, that human beings are such that their beingj is in question in their being, that is, their fundamental evaluations are by the; very nature of this kind of subject always in question.

And it is this kind of responsibility for oneself, I would maintain, not that of radical choice, but the responsibility for radical evaluation implicit in the nature of a strong evaluator, which is essential to our notion of a person.

 

About zayya
Just Be. That's Enough! Shared words with Silence.

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